I’m just going to get it out of the way up front. I’m not a big fan of The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy. It’s not terrible by any means, but I just struggled with the storyline and the art didn’t excite me that much. I’m sure it’s just a failing on my part as a reader, and you should check it out for yourself.
I haven’t written about Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples to this point, because I figured there were enough people singing its praises (and rightfully so). Also, I’m just always late to the party. It is a phenomenal series—original and beautiful. If by chance you haven’t seen it or heard about it, you should definitely check it out. Be warned. It’s not for the squeamish and earns its mature rating, but once you start reading it you’ll likely not want to put it down.
I like to read in a longer format, so I typically wait for the collected volumes. Volume 4 prompted me to write, because it seems to be a big departure in terms of storyline and tone. Up to this point, Alana and Marko, star-crossed lovers in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, are on the run from the authorities, assassins, and tabloid journalists. They are from separate warring planets, and knowledge of their relationship and love child would harm the war machine (or what we call the industrial military complex). They are determined to keep their baby, Hazel, safe. This drives the story and adventure.
In volume 4, Hazel is now a toddler and speaking, but more importantly Alana and Marko have settled into family life. There’s no fairy-tale married life in this fairy tale. Alana is working to put food on the table, but her job doesn’t give her any true satisfaction or meaning in life. In fact, it is soul sucking. So, she starts looking for something to fill the emptiness and keep her going. Marko is a stay-at-home dad, which you don’t see often in comic land. This doesn’t give him true satisfaction, and with Alana working all the time, he starts to feel like he needs something more. Vaughan captures this shift so perfectly. This mix of character reality with the fantasy world is what makes Vaughan’s stories so compelling. The characters and worlds are so original I can’t fathom how he comes up with the stuff, but then there’s the “here’s what really happens in relationships after the honeymoon.” It’s some of the best writing out there.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s still plenty of action and adventure in the volume. A janitor goes off the deep end and kidnaps the newly born robo-prince. As fate would have it, his path crosses with Marko, Alana, and Prince Robot IV in what looks like it will be a wild ride in volume 5. Don’t forget. There are assassins out there and other craziness. Keep reading.
Growing up, my cousin had this thing where no one was allowed to like anything he liked or he accused you of copying him, and sometimes he would punch you. He loved Wolverine, so I said whatever. I didn’t read much Wolverine. There was a lot of other good, if not better stuff out there. Like Elektra: Assassin.
Now that we’re older, I’m much bigger than he is. There will be no punching. So, I’ve started reading some Wolverine comics. Like I said in my Just A Pilgrim post, I like post-apocalyptic stories, and Old Man Logan is kind of a post-apocalyptic Marvel universe. On the “Night the Heroes Fell,” evil won, the good guys disappeared, and the villains have been running things ever since.
The bad guys have split up the U.S. into fiefdoms, extorting those living on their land. The story starts with a pacifist Wolverine living on a ranch in the Sacramento desert with his wife and two kids. He’s late on his rent to the Banners, the grandkids of Bruce Banner. They are a nasty bunch. Hawkeye proposes a delivery job (read illegal smuggling) across the country that would raise enough money to pay the rent. It has a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feel to it. You can see where this is going.
This is a fun road-trip comic with a pretty cool concept. The old villains (or their descendants) and some of the heroes pop up in surprising ways. There are several rabbit trails and plot twists on the journey. Although the ending isn’t necessarily a surprise, the details leading up to it are certainly entertaining.
Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder is a powerful example of how graphic novels / comics can be just as artistic, important, and poignant as traditional literature. The story follows Jack, an underwater welder for an oil rig. Jack and his wife are expecting their first child, but Jack is struggling with issues from his own childhood and his relationship with his father.
Jack feels an overwhelming need to be alone, and the only place he can find the peace and quiet to deal with his thoughts is underwater welding at work. The story takes some surreal and unexpected turns as Jack deals with his past and ultimately tries to answer that nagging human question, “Who am I?” In the introduction to the book, Damon Lindelof describes it as “the most spectacular episode of the Twilight Zone that was never produced,” and that describes the book perfectly.
Lemire’s art is simplistic and raw, which really captures the isolation in the story and Jack’s state of mind. Lemire uses large panels liberally with minimal text, which also highlights the internal contemplative aspects of the story. I had an English professor who said that in good literature everything is there for a purpose. Nothing is superfluous. The craftsmanship and vision displayed in The Underwater Welder is the perfect combination of writing and art to create a powerful story. It is good literature.
I highly recommend The Underwater Welder. The book is over 200 pages, but reads very quickly. And then you will want to read it again to figure out how Lemire captured so much story and emotion with black and white simplicity and sparse text.
I seriously doubt there will be a better graphic novel released in 2012. The Underwater Welder is published by Top Shelf Productions.
I was turned on to Jeff Smith’s RASL by The Best American Comics of 2011. RASL is much different than Smith’s famous masterpiece, Bone. Where Bone is a epic lighthearted fantasy adventure, RASL is a dark and gritty sci fi noir. RASL, the main character, is a hard drinking art thief with a mysterious past. His girlfriend is a prostitute, but he has another girl’s name tattooed on his arm. There’s time jumping, a history lesson on Tesla, a government conspiracy, and a bad guy who looks like a lizard (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) chasing RASL across parallel timelines. Of course, RASL is not his original name, and I’ve yet to figure out what it means.
The overriding theme is the need to make things right with the past, but the harder RASL tries the higher the cost to himself. There is some Native American imagery regarding life being a maze, and the time jumping lends to the theme. There is the recurring image of a pebble being dropped in water and the resultant ripples. It reads like a blend of Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, and LOST. Good, dark fun all around.
The series is steeped in mystery, and Smith is a master of cliffhangers. I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the mystery of it all is what drives the series. Rumors are circulating on the interwebs that the series will come to an explosive conclusion in 2012 or 2013. Issues 1-11 have been collected in three volumes.
Like most people these days, I came to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Philip K. Dick through Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. I knew the film was based on the book and always had it on my to-be-read list, but that list grows faster than I keep up with it. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep kept its spot as other books piled on. Then I stumbled onto this comic adaptation by Tony Parker and BOOM! Studios. It’s word for word from the book with panel-to-panel continuity. I couldn’t resist.
If you like Blade Runner, you really owe it to yourself to read the book or comic. Both the film and novel are excellent, but they are really two different animals (pun intended). The film is very character driven and its thematic focus is very narrow. It’s good, but it’s narrow. The novel is idea driven and is much more complex than the film. Philip K. Dick was as much philosopher as storyteller. There are some crucial scenes and ideas in the novel that make it superior to the film, because they add so much more depth and meaning to the story.
For example, one crucial element in the novel is Mercerism, a religion that uses technology to give people a sense of connectedness. People can plug in and feel connected physically and spiritually to Mercer (and all humanity as a result) as he eternally struggles up his hill, like Sisyphus. As his invisible persecutors throw rocks at him, everyone connected feels the pain. They actually bruise and bleed. This is a human need that androids do not understand. The film doesn’t have enough time to develop this idea, and it is too far removed from Dekker’s primary mission.
The Mercer idea also leads to Buster Friendly, a media personality constantly broadcasting on TV and radio. Everyone loves him. Everyone watches. He has a cast of silly characters that join him similar to variety show and late night TV. The idea of Mercerism and Buster Friendly are just two examples of Philip K. Dick’s prescience. They also contribute to the development of Deckard’s character and the difference between humans and androids.
I’m not sure if the comic adaptation now constitutes a third animal in addition to the film and traditional novel. It includes everything in the novel, and readers who know the film will recognize elements of it in the comic as well. Tony Parker’s illustrations are brilliant and flow seamlessly with the text. I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually reading a novel that was written in 1968. Everything fits and looks perfect in this adaptation.
Parker’s illustrations also illuminate Dick’s underlining themes and the bigger questions at play. What does it mean to be human? If the androids are more than human, what does that mean? What is empathy and why do we have it? Deckard feels like he is increasingly becoming dehumanized by the hunt for the escaped androids. During Deckard’s internal monologue, Parker often illustrates him imagining that he is killing the androids. By the time that moment comes in reality, Deckard has already done it in his mind repeatedly. There is a sense of anti-climax. It doesn’t mean that much anymore. He has lost some of that empathy.
In addition to the great adaptation, the comics also include an essay at the back of each issue by the likes of Warren Ellis, Jonathan Letham, James Blaylock, TimPowers, etc. The essays are very different from one another. Some discuss the book and film from an academic perspective. Some discuss Philip K. Dick in general. Some are like memoirs. I found all of them illuminating after reading the respective issue.
In short, the comic adaptation is fantastic. I loved every second of it. I managed to use the internet machines to track down all 24 issues of it, but BOOM! has issued 6 volumes that collect the whole series. I will close with a quote from Gabriel McKee’s essay at the end of issue 21:
Dick’s universes have shaky walls and insubstantial foundations. But throughout it all—and this is where I think many of Dick’s academic admirers get him wrong—he never abandons hope that an authentic ultimate reality exists. At the core of all of that anxiety… there is a faith that something real is hidden beneath the veil, and that it can and will break through that veil to help us. And it is that hope, more that the surface anxiety, that gives his stories such power.
What Morrison does very well in Supergods is offer an analytical history of superhero comics from the perspective of a fan and talented insider. The book is organized chronologically and progresses through the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance. Unfortunately, Morrison interjects his own memoir and belief systems, which are not all about comics. The book reads as if it should be two or three separate books, and the further Morrison gets away from analyzing the history of superhero comics, the more disjointed the book becomes.
Supergods is subtitled, “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human,” which sounds like a great germinating idea for a critical examination of superhero comics. The first section of the twenty-six chapter, 426 page book comes the closest to living up to the subtitle. Morrison begins at the logical beginning:
In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment—and from their union, something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear. Superman was the ferocious attempt of two young men to show us ourselves at our very best.
Morrison goes on to write an engrossing analysis of the creation of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the small cast of popular early superheroes in the Golden Age. He includes the perfect amount of historical context, pop references, and commentary on the writers and artists to keep the book from becoming overly academic. I found his detailed analyses of the covers of the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Fantastic Four fascinating. Morrison’s prose is full of hyperbole, and his imagery keeps the discussion lively, although at times it’s self-indulgent. At the end of the Golden Age section, he writes:
Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won World War, Americans were more frightened than ever before… There was the space race, with its launch into the limitless unknown, and Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys into the sexual habits of Americans, opening the dripping treasure chest of a buttoned-up country’s inner life, revealing a sleep world of polychromatic polymorphous perversity acted out behind a camouflage of pipe-smoking patriarchs and Stepford wives. There were as many different kinds of fear as there were brands of gum.
As the book moves into the Silver Age section, Morrison examines the fifties and sixties era comics in the context of the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the space race. Along those same lines, He injects his own initiation to comics into the chronology, but this quickly turns from comics to his family life to his belief systems regarding time, the fifth dimension, and the multiverse. From that point the analysis of superhero comics, which is still good, is interrupted by Morrison’s own memoir about his many identity crises, drug inspired occult experiments, and new age philosophy.
The memoir interruptions take over in the Dark Age and Renaissance sections as Morrison’s career takes off, and the organization and logic of the book are derailed. He writes:
If I found some dangerous or interesting ritual in a book, I’d give it a go to see what effect it would have on my consciousness. The results were never less than revelatory. Psychedelics gave these experiences the fidelity of a Star Trek 3-D holodeck experience. Demons and angels had faces now of white-hot, razor-edged purity or grotesque puzzle box monstrosity… I have no really explanations for a lot of this but numerous speculations that may find their way into another book one day. I simply allowed all this to happen under some vague direction from a diamond-interior Protestant straight-edge self that seemed to never lose control.
How Morrison can say with a straight face that his “Protestant straight-edge self” never lost control while he was taking drugs and performing occult experiments is completely illogical to me, especially since he claims to have rejected the Bible at an early age and completely botches the central theme of the Gospel message early in the book.
Between the memoir sections in the last half, Morrison gives an excellent analysis of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work. Yet, he could not restrain himself from including his previously mentioned “speculations” about his mystical experiences. He explains that a life-changing drug induced epiphany he had in Kathmandu gave him his “very own superpower.” He can now “’see’ 5-D perspective.” He goes on for the majority of the last section of the book discussing his “experiments” and explaining his new found understanding of time and the universe. His analysis of more recent comics is painfully thin and focuses on his own work. The end of the book loses all coherence with the rest, and a whole chapter is dedicated to movie adaptations, rather than following the established chronological order of the book.
The history and analysis of superhero comics is excellent through three quarters of the book, but after the Silver Age, the reader has to pick through the new age philosophy and identity-crisis memoir to find the good stuff. I’m sure there are readers, especially diehard fans of Morrison, who will find the memoir and personal philosophy interesting. But as Morrison even seems to recognize, those topics would be better suited for another book. I will say that my advance copy of the book has obvious signs that it was a draft and would be edited.